Secrets of the VAR hub: 94 TVs, no windows, noise-cancelling headphones, a tactics table, purple pool table and gym… with a ‘merit table’ ranking officials and top prize of £50,000
- No expense was spared when creating this hub for the 2023-24 season
- Architecture firm behind Tottenham Hotspur Stadium was involved in project
- Premier League referees’ boss Howard Webb wants VAR to improve standards
There is a futuristic feel to the new VAR hub at Stockley Park. It evokes the command centre of the Starship Enterprise with its 10 swanky workstations and, to borrow again from Star Trek, it was designed to help English football boldly go where it had not gone before.
VAR is now into its fifth season here, yet one problem remains. No matter how much Premier League purple lighting illuminates this windowless rectangular room by Heathrow Airport, getting a true feel for the game itself can be tricky for those inside.
The VAR is not surrounded by 22 highly-strung footballers and 62,000 fans at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. He is removed from the reality of that environment, reliant only on the assistant on his left, replay operator on his right, and screens inside his booth.
They have more televisions than a branch of Currys — 94, including those wrapping the walls — but the VAR’s focus is on the two in front of him; one showing a live feed of the game, another showing it from alternative angles on a three-second delay.
That feed is not accompanied by crowd noises. The idea is this stops supporters from having an influence, although it might have helped Darren England if he had heard the ironic cheers from Tottenham’s fanbase when Luis Diaz was flagged offside for Liverpool in September.
The new Stockley Park studio is filled with an array of TVs and monitors as officials attempt to get to the bottom of all the big calls
Referees also have the use of a gym at Stockley Park, boasting views across London
Officials can use a tactical table to help with understanding teams’ formations
The hum of computers and thrust of aircrafts aside, the silence in the space is broken only by the VAR’s conversation with colleagues when discussing whether a referee is so clearly and obviously wrong that they need to intervene. Noise-cancelling headphones help tune out the rest of the room and when the time is right, the VAR pushes a red button to be patched through to the referee, usually to tell him to ‘delay, delay, delay’ restarting the game.
England did not need to check social media at half-time to know he had dropped a clanger by ‘check completing’ the Diaz offside. Not that he could anyway. Anyone entering the hub must surrender their mobile phones, removing any temptation to check reactions at the break. The VAR needs to wait until he leaves Stockley Park — and plenty have talkSPORT tuned in to their car radios, England included — to discover the response to his decisions.
The PGMOL insist they do not want VARs ‘re-refereeing’ games. They are purely there as a failsafe and are reminded who takes priority when they walk past four mannequins modelling black refereeing kits on their way to their booths. Yet it is from this technological nerve centre where VARs have a direct impact on Premier League games up and down the country.
Funded by the Elite Referee Development Plan, no expense was spared when creating this hub for the 2023-24 season. The PGMOL hired Populous — the architecture firm behind the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium — as well as Instinct Laboratory and IMG to ensure it was an elite environment.
There is a debrief room for pre- and post-match discussions. There is a gym overlooking London. There is a massage area, a lounge, a canteen with a purple pool table, an outdoor balcony with sofas, a video training suite, even a room with a tactical table — not unlike Subbuteo — as officials like to do homework on teams they are overseeing so there are no surprises.
There are, of course. Sometimes it can feel as if removing the salt from the world’s oceans would be easier than eradicating surprise at refereeing calls. There are too many subjective decisions for there to not be a debate. Just look at Andy Madley’s lack of VAR intervention for the foul by Manchester City’s Mateo Kovacic on Arsenal’s Martin Odegaard, so soon after John Brooks recommended Chelsea’s Malo Gusto receive red for tackling Aston Villa’s Lucas Digne.
The VARs test their line of communication to the refereeing team is working at 2.30pm. They test the offside lines by drawing them to players during the warm-up at 2.40pm. They know the technology works. But come 3pm on a Saturday, anything can happen when there is a human being sitting in that leather computer chair, staring at his two screens.
VAR failed to award Wolves a penalty for this challenge by Man United keeper Andre Onana
VAR wrongly disallowed Luis Diaz’s goal for Liverpool against Spurs last month
Brighton received an apology after Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg fouled Kaoru Mitoma in penalty area
The PGMOL’s Match Officials Mic’d Up programme reminds us they are only human, albeit it is understood VARs are being encouraged to remain professional with their communication and curb their use of nicknames (we heard ‘Mads’ for Madley and ‘Brooksy’ for Brooks in the last episode, alongside a plethora of ‘mate’ references).
But the PGMOL’s top priority is ensuring the threshold for intervention is consistent. There is a new VAR training programme in place and recently, the refereeing body emailed each official a series of video clips of penalty claims from other European leagues.
Every individual had to reply with a verdict — whether they would intervene or not — ahead of their fortnightly get-together at St George’s Park. Once there, it was revealed how the group of 50 or so voted. Some were clear and obvious. Others less so, with one clip from this homework assignment splitting the room in half.
Challenges such as the Kovacic and Gusto ones will continue to be the source of classroom discussions at St George’s because, lately, fans have been left feeling as if the VARs are only consistent in being inconsistent.
There is frustration among referees at the criticism they receive. It is why they are unlikely to take part in post-match press conferences any time soon. As one tells Mail Sport: ‘You would only want to hear from us if we had made a mistake. You wouldn’t want to ask us about what a great game we’d had.’ The same goes for VARs, who are forever criticised, never celebrated.
They are not prohibited from having social media profiles, so long as they do not discuss refereeing decisions. Yet none have risked breaching this barrier until retirement, nor do they have a WhatsApp group where they can praise or poke fun at each other.
Previously, referees received feedback via a laborious evaluation system which delivered an accuracy mark for every decision made (they make up to 300 per 90 minutes). Some complained this was an unfair method of marking, their reasoning being that a tranquil meeting room at Stockley Park cannot compare to the mayhem at, say, Old Trafford.
Pervis Estupinan’s goal was ruled out for offside after VAR lines were drawn on wrong defender
Premier League referees’ boss Howard Webb wants to improve the standard of officiating
As of this season, referees and VARs are judged via the Key Match Incident panel — five independents who vote on whether their major decisions were correct or incorrect — and debriefs with dedicated coaches. It is a move towards a more holistic assessment, meaning the feel of the game is taken into consideration, and results are fed into a ‘merit table’ ranking their overall accuracy scores from best to worst.
It helps the PGMOL decide who to trust with the most plum matches, typically those between the Premier League’s big six, otherwise known as the ‘golden games’ among officials. Michael Oliver is a predictable pacesetter, yet his score took a hit when he failed to dismiss Kovacic at Arsenal. Anthony Taylor is another towards the top of this table.
There is no trophy at the end of the campaign for the champion. Only the knowledge that he was the best of the bunch, alongside a lucrative bonus which insiders say can be worth up to £50,000 on top of a basic salary of around £120,000. Secrecy surrounds this ‘merit table’. Even the officials themselves cannot see where their colleagues rank — only their own accuracy mark.
The Premier League is known as the best division in the world and the PGMOL want officiating which complements that. They have created the swankiest space imaginable. Now they need those using it to rise to the same standards.
Luis Diaz’s disallowed goal (September 30, 2023)
The biggest blunder to date. Luis Diaz scores for Liverpool at Tottenham only for the linesman to flag for offside. Replays show Diaz is clearly onside but Darren England, the VAR, thought the goal had been given so waves the decision through with a rapid ‘check complete’. Audio released by PGMOL shows England refuses to break protocol and correct the decision when it becomes clear he’s made a huge mistake.
Andre Onana escapes punishment (August 14, 2023)
Manchester United goalkeeper Andre Onana clatters into Wolves striker Sasa Kalajdzic but referee Simon Hooper refuses to award a stoppage-time penalty and VAR Michael Salisbury opts not to overturn the decision. Wolves lose 1-0 and manager Gary O’Neil receives an apology for the mistake from referees’ chief Howard Webb.
Mitoma denied a clear penalty (April 8, 2023)
Brighton receive an apology after Tottenham midfielder Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg hacks down Kaoru Mitoma in the penalty area but VAR Michael Salisbury doesn’t get involved.
Brighton have two goals disallowed in a 2-1 defeat and Salisbury is dropped from the next round of Premier League games.
Mason forgets to draw lines (February 11, 2023)
Mail Sport revealed that VAR Lee Mason forgot to draw the offside lines on Ivan Toney’s equaliser for Brentford in a 1-1 draw with title-chasers Arsenal. Had he done so, Toney’s goal would have been ruled out for offside. Mason left his role just days after the incident.
VAR draws lines on the wrong defender (February 11, 2023)
On the same day as Mason’s costly blunder, Brighton’s Pervis Estupinan sees his goal against Crystal Palace ruled out for offside after the VAR lines were drawn on the wrong defender. John Brooks, the VAR, was dropped from the next two Premier League games.
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